Weaving Tradition: Preserving the Craft of Sweetgrass Basket Making on Hilton Head Island

Weaving Tradition: Preserving the Craft of Sweetgrass Basket Making on Hilton Head Island
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Sweetgrass Basket Weaving

Traditional Basket Making Lives on as an Art Form

Michael Smalls and Daurus Niles, both from Charleston, South Carolina, make it their life's work to preserve the craft of sweet grass basket making. The two are distant cousins from the Mount Pleasant area who learned the time-intensive practice of coiling sweet grass into baskets from their great-grandmother. They're best known locally for teaching classes on the craft, including selling and making their baskets at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Welcome Center on the north end of the island.


Smalls and Niles have been making sweet grass baskets off and on for about 41 years. Every basket is handmade and the material is all natural sweet grass that grows along the coast of South Carolina. Each basket requires days to weeks to make depending on the size. They make about 100 baskets a year but no two baskets are exactly the same. Sweet grass baskets were used extensively in the 1700's and 1800's on the plantations, where slaves made large, round fanner baskets to clean off rice husks. People still sweet grass baskets today to serve breads, fruits and display flowers but now they have become a form of art because of the detailing.


The practice has been passed from generations, originating in West Africa and continuing in slave plantations of the Lowcountry. Smalls and Niles' great-grandmother took her wares to Broad Street in Charleston to sell. The children weren't excluded - if they wanted money, they had to earn it with their hands, weaving their own baskets and selling them. The children would start by making simple place mats to hone their skills, then let their creativity produce more complex artistry.


Smalls started weaving when he was about 8 years old. But as he grew older, he fell away from it, only coming back sporadically to weave. He worked in the auto industry until downsizing left him few options but to reach back into his past to find what he felt was his true talent. He now weaves at the Welcome Center five days a week, threading palmetto strips around sweet grass with a nail bone, the broken-off handle of a spoon filed to a point.


Some of his larger pieces fetch more than $1,000. Visitors often ask about the high price and he explains that in addition to the production process being time consuming (a medium-sized basket takes Smalls about two days to complete), sweet grass itself is rare to find and the art form even more rare. "It's one of the only art forms that can be traced back to West Africa," said Niles. "Most others have died out."


Smalls' and Niles' pieces (Smalls' angel-shaped vase and Niles' serving tray) have been shown in a special exhibit at one of the nation's most prestigious museums: the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art (Washington, DC).


Original article by Justin Paprocki, published by The Island Packet


See It For Yourself at the ESTC

In the spirit of celebrating local art and culture, the Sustainable Culinary Showcase at the ESTC 2011 will, feature, in addition to local restaurants showcasing South Carolina-grown products, Darurus Niles's sweet grass basket making demonstration. The Sustainable Culinary Showcase is an evening social event highlighting Hilton Head Island and South Carolina's best sustainable culinary experiences, certified by South Carolina's Fresh on the Menu program.


*Entrance is free with full conference registration. Day passes do not include a ticket to the showcase. This event is open to the public. Tickets (US$45 per person, free for children under the age of 10) can be purchased at the conference registration desk or in advance by contacting Brenda Ciapanna at 843-341-8368 or bciapanna[at]hiltonheadisland.org.


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